Court dismisses claim by drug trafficker facing execution that he has 'mental age of person below 18'

Justice See Kee Oon reiterated that Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam has been accorded due process in accordance with the law. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The High Court on Monday (Nov 8) dismissed a bid by a 33-year-old Malaysian, who is scheduled to be hanged on Wednesday (Nov 10) for drug trafficking, to escape the gallows.

However, Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam was granted a stay of execution pending a hearing before the Court of Appeal at 2.30pm on Tuesday.

Nagaenthran, who was arrested in 2009 at the age of 21 with a bundle of heroin strapped to his left thigh, had sought to challenge his execution, contending that he had the mental age of a person below 18 years old.

He argued that the execution of intellectually disabled persons is prohibited under customary international law as this amounted to inhuman punishment.

He also claimed the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) has an "internal policy" not to execute convicts who are mentally disabled - a claim the agency has refuted.

In his oral remarks dismissing the application, Justice See Kee Oon said there was no credible basis for Nagaenthran's assertions as to his mental age.

The alleged mental age was based on the opinion of his lawyer, Mr M. Ravi, who has no medical expertise and has met the prisoner only once, on Nov 2, for 26 minutes, the judge noted.

Justice See reiterated that Nagaenthran has been accorded due process in accordance with the law.

"It is not open to him to challenge the court's findings pertaining to his mental responsibility, whether directly or indirectly, in yet another attempt to revisit and unravel the finality of those findings."

Nagaenthran's case came under the spotlight late last month when a letter from the SPS to his mother in Ipoh on Oct 26 was circulated on social media.

The letter informed her that the death sentence on her son would be carried out on Nov 10, and that SPS would facilitate extended daily visits till then.

A petition calling for him to be pardoned from the death sentence has since garnered more than 64,000 signatures.

It argued that Nagaenthran should be spared the gallows because he had committed the offence under duress, and had been assessed to have a low IQ of 69.

He was sentenced to death by the High Court in 2010 after being convicted of trafficking 42.72g of heroin. The Misuse of Drugs Act provides for the death penalty if the amount of heroin imported is more than 15g.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal against his conviction and sentence in July 2011.

His execution was put on hold as the Government was then carrying out a review of the mandatory death penalty.

In 2013, the law was changed to give judges the discretion to impose life terms and caning for drug couriers, instead of death, if specific conditions are met.

Given the chance for his case to be reviewed, Nagaenthran applied on Feb 24, 2015 to be resentenced under the new regime.

One of the issues considered was whether his mental responsibility was substantially impaired at the time of his offence.

After considering the facts and expert evidence from four psychiatric and psychological experts, the High Court held that Nagaenthran knew what he was doing, and upheld the death sentence in 2017.

The experts, including one called by the defence, said Nagaenthran was not intellectually disabled.

The court noted that he was "continuously altering his account of his education qualifications, ostensibly to reflect lower educational qualifications each time he was interviewed".

In 2019, the decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeal, which said it was satisfied that Nagaenthran clearly understood the nature of his acts.

The Court of Appeal noted that he knew it was unlawful for him to be transporting drugs, and hence tried to conceal the bundle by strapping it to his left thigh and wearing a large pair of trousers over it.

Nagaenthran undertook the criminal endeavour in order to pay off his debts, and hoped to receive a further sum of money upon successful delivery, said the apex court.

This was "the working of a criminal mind, weighing the risks and countervailing benefits associated with the criminal conduct in question", the court added.

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